Monday, August 18, 2014

The First Ship, But Not the Last

On August 13, 1896, the SS Columbia sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for a direct journey to New York. A photo of this steamship is not available but she is described as a three-masted ship with a single smoke stack. I don't know if anything memorable happened during her voyage but she arrived in New York on August 21, 1896, so there were no substantial delays. This voyage was at its midpoint 118 years ago today.

For the ship's crew and the staff at Ellis Island, this was just another ship carrying immigrants and cargo from Europe to America. For me though, this sailing has special meaning because the first of my direct ancestors was among the passengers. My great-grandfather Abraham Klein appears on line 20 of this manifest:
Unfortunately, prior to 1900, ship manifests were barely more than lists containing very little important information. Abraham, aka Abram, reported his age as 25 but I think he was really only about 18. The officials at Ellis Island might look at a 25 year-old butcher as more likely to earn a living than an 18 year-old kid claiming to be a butcher. Abraham traveled along, his destination is "NY", and he departed "Hamburg." That's it. That's all we can learn from this document. When Abraham married my great-grandmother Sora Mirjam Zejburski almost nine years later, he had officially aged only one year. Sora was fresh of the boat when they married in 1905.
Abraham Klein, 1905
Sarah Klein (nee Sora Mirjam Zejburski) 1905
More would follow, of course. Two of my grandparents, and all eight of my great-grandparents entered the USA through Ellis Island, as did five of my great-great grandparents, and one 3rd great-grandmother. Abraham, of course, is my father's paternal grandfather. The next to step foot on American soil were both of mother's grandfathers, Moshe Sznajder (Morris Schneider) and Jeruchim Bergzon (Ruben Berger). Both would make the journey more than once.
Moshe Sznajder sailed from Hamburg in London in 1903. I can't find any evidence that he continued on to America but my guess is that he did. This was about five years before he married my great-grandmother back in Poland and started a family. Moshe would make the trip to America two more times (assuming he did so in 1903), in 1911 and then staying for good in 1922. My great-grandmother Sheine Sznajder, nee Tokar (Jennie Schneider) came over with all of the children in 1928.
Moshe and Sheine Sznajder, undated circa 1920?
Jeruchim Bergzon first came to America in 1904. He listed his brother Jacob in Brooklyn as the person he was coming to see but I can't find a trace of Jacob in the records. Jeruchim left his wife Dobrusza, my great-grandmother, and their oldest son Zalman Lejb back in Lithuania. When Jeruchim returned to America in 1911, he brought Zalman Lejb, now 16 year-old Louis with him. He brought Louis along to either begin making a foothold in New Jersey where other Schneiders were also settling, or because Louis was now old enough to be conscripted into the Russian army. Jeruchim made his final journey to America in 1921. My grandmother, Peshe, and her older brother David, arrived in 1929, and Dobrusza came over with youngest son Zalman (aka Jerry) in 1931. Dobrusza is the last of my direct ancestors to arrive in America.
Jeruchim Bergzon
Most of my other direct ancestors, including the Lutzkis, Belinkis, and the rest of the Zejburskis arrived between 1904 and 1913. Few ships carrying immigrants made the voyage during WWI. Cousins that I never knew existed until I began my research arrived as early as 1890. A few even came to America after WWII, having survived the war in the hands of the Nazis or the Russians. Other survivors emigrated to Palestine/Israel where their descendants live today. One Lutzki cousin, with his wife and son, couldn't get an American visa in the early 1920s when the US began strict enforcement of immigration quotas, so they settled for the next best thing...Canada.
Too many never left the Old Country. We can look back now and ask why they didn't leave. Life was difficult but they probably thought that since they were able to survive the last war, or the last pogrom, they'd survive the next one. By the time they realized it was too late to leave, it really was too late to leave. To my knowledge, my great-great-grandfather Moshe Hirsz Tokar, is my only direct ancestor to die in the Holocaust. Many other victims were close relatives.
I thank all of my ancestors who decided to make the journey. When they made the decision, they were probably only thinking about themselves, their children, and their grandchildren who would hopefully make the journey with them or follow later. They probably never even considered that any of their descendants would be interested in gathering the few surviving details of their lives. This is my journey.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter Five

“It’ll be good to get back to work,” Father said at breakfast. Even though most of the city had been shut down for the past couple of weeks there was still plenty to do. Hopefully other businesses would begin to reopen. Until he knew it was safe to be outside, though, he wanted Mother and me to stay in the apartment unless he’s with us. He kissed each of us on the cheek and left for work. Mother decided that we needed to catch up on some sewing and mending. She rummaged through the dresser drawers and closets looking for any clothing with holes, loose or missing buttons, and loose threads. The pile ended up being larger than I expected. It’s a nice sunny day so we sat near the front window where the light is better. We took a short break for lunch and to stretch our legs, but that’s what our day was…sewing.

We were both startled when the phone suddenly rang. We stared at each other until the second ring in case we had imagined the first one. At the sound of the second ring, my mother jumped up to answer the phone. “Hello?” she inquired. “Alex, is that really you? Helena, it’s your Uncle Alex calling from London!” I ran over and we both held on to the receiver.

“Hello Uncle Alex!”

“Zofia, Helena, it’s so good to hear your voices. How are you? How is Michal? Is he home? Max? How is Papa? I’ve been trying to reach you for days.”

“We didn’t even know the phones were working again,” Mother said. “We’re fine, so excited to hear your voice. Michal went back to work for the first time today. Papa is fine. We saw him yesterday. We were also able to visit with Michal’s brother Jozef and their parents. Everyone is safe. Max joined the army, and we haven’t heard from him yet. Now that the fighting is over we hope to hear from him soon. What have you heard? Without the radio and newspapers, we can’t get any news.”

“The Germans have taken over the entire region around the city,” Alex said. “The Polish army won some small battles, but for the most part was continually beaten back. They're trying to rally, but it doesn’t look good. It’s too soon to know yet how England and France will be able to help, and no one knows what the Russians are up to. ‘Don’t trust the Germans’ is what we’re hearing. They're not the same Germans our parents remember from the Great War. In their minds, anyone who isn’t of German descent is a lesser human being, and they don’t care what happens to them.”

“Yes, we saw that when the Germans entered the city. Many people were killed or injured and we’ve been hearing sporadic gunfire since, mainly on the other side of town, behind city hall. Hopefully the businesses and markets can reopen soon. We purchased a lot of supplies, but without meat, dairy, and fruits and vegetables it’s difficult to put together a good meal.”

“Good, you have supplies. That was smart planning. It’s so good to hear your voices. Let me go before we get cut off. Maggie sends her best. She’ll be very happy to hear that everyone is in good health. The twins are doing well--three years old and into everything. I’ll try to call again soon, and when I hear that the postal service is running I’ll send you a package with supplies and newspapers. Give Papa and Michal big hugs for me. I love you all.”

“We love you, too!” we both shouted.

“Take care of yourself. Bye.”

Mother was ten feet off the ground after she hung up the phone. She grabbed me around the waist and began spinning us around the floor. We were laughing so hard we tripped over the coffee table and landed on the sofa, still laughing. Just then, Father walked in. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“Alex called! The phones are working. Oh Michal it was so good to hear his voice.”

She ran over to hug him and hit him so hard that he smashed against the door. He began laughing, too.

My mother and her brother, Alex, were very close when they were growing up. She said that they had a special connection, like twins, even though he’s three years younger. Through most of their childhood, both of their parents had jobs so Mother and Alex spent a lot of time alone together. Shortly after my parents married, Alex went to the local university to study English literature. On the dean’s recommendation, Alex was awarded a full scholarship to Oxford with the promise of a teaching position after graduation. Mother said that her heart almost broke when he left for London. They write letters weekly, but she especially loves it when he telephones so she can hear his voice.

“I have to tell my father that Alex called. Can we go right now?” she pleaded with Father.

“It'll be dark soon but I suppose we can take a quick walk over to this apartment. Helena, will you be alright alone for a little while?”

“Yes, Father, I’ll be fine. Go. I’ll watch over dinner.”

They hurried out the door, and I was alone. I didn’t feel scared; I was actually relieved to have some time to myself so I can sort through my thoughts of what’s been happening to us. It’s so quiet, quieter than it’s been for more than two weeks. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but at least for now, it means people aren’t shooting at each other. I thought back to the discussions we had in school about what the Germans were doing. I still don’t completely understand why some men feel the need to conquer other countries. They do it in the name of their homeland and the people they rule, but I think it might just be ego. I wondered about the many millions of people who were repressed, tortured, injured, and killed throughout history all because of the male ego. It’s no different than a bully harassing a weaker child.

Unfortunately, in the situation being played out now, Poland is the weakling. Poland became an independent republic again just twenty years ago and hasn’t had enough time or resources to build an army to protect itself. Maybe our leaders believed that Poland would finally be left alone to make its way into the future. Maybe they thought that the League of Nations would put a stop to Germany’s recent aggression. Maybe the Poles need to take control of our own destinies and not rely on our leaders.

My parents returned home after only being gone twenty minutes. “That was fast,” I commented. “How is Grandpa Nick? Does he ever plan on getting a telephone installed?”

“Your grandfather is fine and he'll probably never get a telephone. ‘Who would I call?’ he always says. He's very excited that we heard from Alex. I think in a couple of days we’ll bring dinner over to his apartment and spend the evening there.”

Just as we were finishing our dinner we heard gunfire again, this time a little closer. Father thought that it might be coming from the town square. At least we’re inside for the night. Hopefully whatever was happening outside stays away from my family. It was difficult to sleep that night. There was sporadic gunfire throughout the night and I also heard some screaming. I guess we'll have to wait until morning to find out what's happening.

I woke the next morning to find Uncle Jozef in our apartment. Because he lives closer to the town square, it’s easier for him to get more news. “The Germans are evicting the wealthy Jews who live around the town square and pillaging their shops and offices. The Jews were told to go find housing in the Jewish district, so they took whatever they could carry and fled in that direction. As they did so, some of the soldiers, who had been drinking, decided it would be fun to use them as target practice. Luckily, they were too drunk to hit anything. In addition to the inns that the Germans have commandeered, the officers are moving into the nicer apartments. They've also moved into the offices and raided the shops of all merchandise.”

“The damn Jews again!” Mother exclaimed. “Pardon the language but who cares what happens to the Jews as long as the Germans leave us alone.” She hurried off into the kitchen to get more coffee.

I was always puzzled by her feelings toward the Jews. To my knowledge, my mother has never known, and does not now know, any Jews by name or had more than incidental contact with them. How can she have such strong opinions about them? I’ve heard my grandparents, her parents, make similar comments, but I don’t know if they had ever been wronged by any Jews. I know my mother is not alone in her feelings. In school we learned that during the last war many Jews were accused of spying for the Germans. Maybe that’s where it comes from.

Jozef had also spoken to his law partner whose son-in-law, an officer in the Polish cavalry, had escaped from the Germans.

"The majority of the Polish armed forces are regrouping around Warsaw to protect the capital from falling to the Germans," Josef said. "The western portion of the country is considered lost for now, and we have to make a successful stand at Warsaw if we have any chance of repelling the Germans from Poland.”

There are also rumors that we have to watch for an invasion from the east by the Russians. The Russians have a long history of mistreating the Polish people without provocation. They call themselves Soviets now but as Grandpa Andrej likes to say, “Once a Russian, always a Russian.”

Father and Jozef got ready to leave and go to work. “Father, is it alright if I run over to my school to see if there are any notices posted? I want to make sure I know when classes begin again.”

“Tomorrow is Saturday,” he replied. “I’ll walk over with you tomorrow morning. We can also check to see if any of the shops are open so we can purchase more supplies. I really need to get to work now.” And with that Mother and I began another boring day trapped in the apartment.


Saturday morning I hurried to get ready to go out with Father to visit my school. Mother didn’t want to come with us. Maybe she needed a little alone time like I did the other day. I hope we run into some of my friends. I’m anxious to know if they’re safe, but Mother doesn’t want me to tie up the telephone line with local calls that aren’t emergencies.

When we arrived at the school, the front windows were shattered, the result of the building across the street being hit by a missile. As we stepped through the door we noticed that wasn’t the only damage. It looked like someone decided to destroy some of the furniture and books. The headmaster’s office seemed to be the center of the attack. Father commented that that made it look like the culprits were students. We heard some movement near the front door and I grabbed his arm, and we both breathed a sigh of relief when we saw that it was my friends Anna and Katharine and Anna’s father. It’s so good to see them. We all compared notes about our lives since the invasion, and the stories sounded very similar.

“I guess you’ll have to wait a little longer for school to being again,” Father said. “Looks like they have a lot of cleanup and repairs to take care of, and we still don’t have electricity.”

“I guess we should check back in a few days,” I said.

Father and I cautiously approached the town square. That’s where the largest shops are located but also where the Germans have set up their home base. Father peeked around the corner of a building and quickly pulled back.

“German soldiers, no one else,” he said.

We decided to walk around for a while. There are other shops scattered throughout this section of the city. We came across a hardware store. The owner was there, sweeping up, and he allowed us to enter. We found two boxes of matches and one box of candles. Father noticed a piece of wood about the size of my broken bedroom window, so he bought that, as well as a box of nails and a hammer. Next we came across a newsstand that was open but, of course, didn’t have any current newspapers. Father decided we needed a treat and bought three chocolate bars. He earned a kiss on the cheek for that.

One more stop, the church. We wanted to see if there would be services tomorrow morning. As the church came into view it appeared to be unharmed. I had to smile when we stepped inside and saw that the beautiful stained glass windows were intact.

“Ah, more curious wanderers,” the priest said as he approached us. “It’s good to see you. Parishioners have been stopping in, two or three at a time, making sure our church was still here. Services are planned for tomorrow morning, if things are quiet that is. God wouldn’t want anyone putting themselves in danger just to come hear me speak,” he said with a wink and a smile.

Father shook his hand and said “Thank you for that, Father. We'll try to be here tomorrow morning. Bless you and be safe.”

When we arrived home Mother seemed relaxed. I guess she did need some alone time. She had heated up water on the stove so she could soak in a warm bath. It’s amazing the power of a good bath. She already had lunch set on the table. She opened up a jar of peaches as a treat and laughed when she saw that Father bought chocolate bars. “Great minds think alike,” he said with a smile and gave her a hug.

As we were eating our lunch the lamp on the corner table suddenly came on. “Electricity!” I shouted. Father jumped from his chair to turn on the radio. “News!” he shouted.

We huddled around the radio as he tried to tune in a local station. There was nothing but static. He looked relived when he finally found a BBC broadcast. Warsaw is under heavy attack by the Germans, and the Polish army has positioned all of their defenses in and around the city. The British Air Force, the RAF, has been bombing targets in Germany in an attempt to draw their focus from Poland, but that had little effect. The broadcaster listed some of the Polish cities and towns that the Germans already occupied and mentioned something about the Germans and Russians having signed a pact that divided Poland between the two countries...again.

That's it, the latest news. The broadcast confirmed what Uncle Jozef had told us yesterday, but somehow we felt better knowing that our allies were attempting to help us.

“What's that pact the announcer mentioned?” I asked.

Father said that he had heard rumors about such a pact but he and his friends had shrugged it off, thinking that the League of Nations would stop it from being enacted. With the rumors about an invasion by the Russians, he wondered whether they can be stopped either. “Once again the Germans and Russians are making a Poland land-grab while the world sits by and does nothing,” Father said.


The city was quiet when I woke the next morning so Father decided that we should attend church services. As we were getting ready, though, we heard a loud commotion coming from the town square. It was the roar of many trucks but Father said that the sound appeared to be moving away from the city, towards the west.

"Maybe our soldiers finally mustered enough strength to force a German retreat," I said.

“It can’t be that simple,” he said. He turned on the radio but there weren’t any reports about what was happening.

“This is strange," he said. "We should stay indoors until we know what’s happening,”

Mother dropped into the arm chair. She was excited to be going to church, not just for the service but to see her friends. Instead, we just sat there listening to the fading noises. We could see our neighbors peering from their windows with puzzled looks on their faces. Now what?

After a while, that same roar that had disappeared to the west of the city was heard approaching us from the east. Is it our army or the Russians? We weren’t hearing any bombs or gunfire. You could cut the suspense with a knife.  Then we got our answer…breaking glass. It sounded like windows were being smashed along the streets leading into the city center.

“The Russians,” Father said, hanging his head.

Mother pulled all of the blinds shut and then grabbed some dark tablecloths from the linen closet to place over the curtains so no one could see we’re here. Father grabbed the piece of wood, box of nails, and hammer and quickly repaired my bedroom window, trying not to make too much noise with the hammer. After they both finished, neither seemed able to relax. They paced, mumbling to themselves. Mother locked the apartment door as she gave me a weak smile. She didn’t want to scare me, but I’ve never seen them this nervous.

We spent the rest of the afternoon listening to the radio, hoping to hear whether the outside world knows what’s happening to us. Finally, by late afternoon, we heard the report that the Germans had peacefully retreated from the region around our city and the Russians had moved in. That's it, the entire report. We already knew that. Father turned off the radio as we heard soldiers marching up our street. He joined Mother and me on the sofa, sitting between us with an arm around each of us.

“They’re just letting us know they’re here,” he said.

Thankfully the soldiers passed without starting any trouble.

We weren’t very hungry that evening, so we just had some toast and tea. It’s nice to be able to make toast again now that the electricity is turned back on. As we were eating, we heard someone moving around in the hallway outside our apartment. Suddenly someone was jiggling the doorknob, trying to open the door.

“Go into the bedroom,” Father whispered.

Mother grabbed my hand, and we went to hide as Father grabbed the hammer and moved near the door. Mother and I peeked out from the bedroom. We could hear the person fidgeting with the lock, and she pulled me close. Suddenly the doorknob turned. Father raised the hammer as the door opened and prepared to bring it down on the head of the intruder when he yelled “Max!”

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter Four

“Helena, Helena, wake up! Wake up! Now!” my mother was yelling as she shook me. I rubbed my eyes, not sure if I was really awake. “Helena, now! Hurry, grab some clothes, shoes, and your blanket and pillow. Get into the bathtub”.

I realized now that I was awake. “What’s going on?”

“It’s the Germans!” she said and ran out of my room.

It was still dark outside but now I could hear the distant sounds of the attack. I grabbed my things, almost tripping over the blanket as I ran to the bathroom. My parents had already dragged Max’s mattress into the tub and Father came running in with the radio.

“We can listen as long as the electricity stays on,” he said as he set the radio down in the corner beneath the sink. At least we have an electrical outlet in the bathroom.

Mother ran in with two bottles of water, candles, matches, and some food. “Helena, get into the bathtub, under the mattress.”

The mattress was heavy but I squeezed in under it with my pillow and blanket. My parents finished grabbing the last few emergency items, sat on the bathroom floor, and closed the door. The closed door muffled the sound of the bombs, but we could hear the nonstop barrage.

Father plugged in the radio. the local news was broadcasting. The German army, with what appeared to be more than a million troops, had crossed from Germany into Poland shortly before five o’clock this morning. Our troops were ready, but the Germans were moving so quickly and with such force that our army was still stunned. We sat listening to the reports, hearing what the newsman was saying but not really processing the information. It took a while to sink in. As the morning progressed, more detailed reports were transmitted from the battlefield. Heavy casualties among the Polish troops, many tanks destroyed. Our brave soldiers are trying to rally.

Later that morning, things got a lot worse. There were large explosions not far from our building. “German bomber planes,” Father said. The walls shook and dust fell from the ceiling. Mother moved over next to Father and he put his arm around her. One of her hands was holding mine, the other was clutching a framed photo of Max. Max! I had forgotten about him. We don’t know where he was stationed. He reported for training four days ago, not long enough to write or call.

“Don’t worry,” Father said. “Max is smart. He’ll stay as safe as possible.”

“How is being smart going to help him?” Mother yelled frantically.

“It just will,” Father whispered and stroked her cheek.

It sounds as if the world is coming to an end. Two loud explosions seemed to  originate from right in front of our apartment building, and the sound of shattering glass confirmed it. I think my bedroom window just shattered. We heard on the radio that the German bombers were attacking many villages, towns, and cities throughout most of the country with no attempt to bypass civilians. Reports were coming in of many buildings destroyed and many civilian casualties. Through all of this, Mother had the presence of mind to make a snack for us--milk, cereal, and fruit. “We have to keep our strength up,” she said but she wasn’t really speaking to us. After we ate, Mother pulled a blanket over Father’s head so I could get changed out of my pajamas and into some daytime clothing.

The radio signal was breaking up so Father focused on keeping us tuned in to a news station, any news station. He came across a London BBC transmission. The accounting firm he works for has clients who do business in England and France so he knows a little English and French. I took an English class two years ago. We gleaned what we could from the BBC reports and translated for Mother. The Germans had invaded Poland without any warning or declaration of war. The British are outraged. Would British Prime Minister Chamberlain live up to his promise to declare war on Germany and what would that mean for us?

“What'll happen, Father, if our troops can’t hold back the attack?”

“We’ll just have to take it one day at a time, Sweetie,” he said as he took my hand, “one day at a time.”

Father continued working the radio tuner to see if there were any new reports. Suddenly we heard, and felt, the loudest explosion of the day and the electricity went out. Mother lit a candle. She set it in a holder and placed it in the sink so it would extinguish itself  and not start a fire if it was knocked over. We have enough trouble without that. Now there's nothing but the sound of the bombs. We did hear some gunshots in the street and a woman screaming but it’s too dangerous to go see what’s happening. I wondered who fired the shots because the German troops haven’t entered the city yet.

During  a lull in the bombing, Father ran out to the bedroom to grab his watch. He had forgotten to take it in the rush this morning, and without a window or the radio, there's no way to know what time it is. He took a chance and ran to the window to see what’s going on in the street below. He noticed some of our neighbors also taking the opportunity to peek out.

“Michal, what did you see?”

“A lot of smoke, but it appears to be quiet for now. The window in Helena’s bedroom is broken, glass everywhere. We’ll have to use cardboard tomorrow to cover it.” He turned back toward us. “Zofia, did you grab a lantern this morning?”

“Oh, no, I forgot. I just grabbed the candles.”

Father went back out again to get the lantern. While things are quiet, he checked on the Wozniaks next door. They’re an elderly couple whose two sons had moved to America. They have no other family here in Poland. They’re very nice people, and all of the building tenants have sort of adopted them as grandparents. Mr. Wozniak thanked Father for checking, and said they’re both okay. Having lived through a German attack before, the Wozniaks had also prepared over the past few weeks and are hiding in their bathroom bunker just like we are.

Suddenly the bombing started again, and Father ran back to the bathroom. He set the lamp aside for now because there was a little bit of daylight peaking beneath the door in addition to the candlelight. We should probably have saved the candle, but being this dark with all of the commotion would have been too scary. We heard three explosions very close to the building and we had to cover our heads and faces from the dust falling from the ceiling. I don’t think they hit the building.

Mother wanted to get to the telephone to call her father's neighbor. Her father lives alone and doesn’t have a telephone. Father stopped her. “Let’s wait a while. Maybe there will be another break in the attack.”

The bombing must have stopped for a while because I had dozed off. My mother wasn’t in the room when I woke. “Where's Mother?” I asked.

“She tried to make some telephone calls to see if the family is safe, but the there isn't any service. While it’s quiet, she's getting milk and food from the ice box so we can have some dinner. The food will spoil before long, so we might as well eat it.”

 “What time is it?” I asked.

“A little after seven o'clock. It’s beginning to get dark. Maybe we’ll get lucky and have a quiet night.”

We all had trouble sleeping that first night. The sounds of battle were off in the distance, but we knew the local bombing could begin at any moment. We spent the night in our little bunker. I was able to read a little before Mother said that we should try to get some sleep and blew out the candle. Just before dawn the bombing began again. We could hear the planes flying in low as they shot up the streets. I wondered what they were shooting at because almost everyone was hiding indoors.

We spent the day reading, playing cards, telling stories, doing anything to distract us from what was happening outside. What little fruit and vegetables we had were finished by the end of the day. All we had to drink was water because the last of the milk had already gone bad and had to be poured down the sink. As the day came to an end, I was trying to figure out why I felt tired. I had barely moved all day.

We were awakened again the next morning by another bombing raid. Father thought  it sounded like they were bombing the train station. The Germans would want to cut off all methods of transportation available to the Polish army. The electricity was back, though, so Mother turned on the radio. Our soldiers are winning some small battles, but for the most part are being driven back. After each retreat the soldiers rally and attempt to push forward again. The big news was that England and France had declared war on Germany.

“Thanks goodness!” Mother exclaimed. “Now we’ll get some help. I knew our allies wouldn’t forget about us.”

“I don’t know Zofia. England and France are a long way away. They might be able to distract the German forces by attacking them on Germany’s western borders, but their planes can’t reach Poland, and their ships won’t be able to get past the German navy. I’m sure they’ll do what they can. Hitler has already conquered too many territories.”

“If Hitler hates the Jews why would he want to conquer a country with such a large Jewish population? “ I asked.

“That’s a good question”, Father replied. “We’ve heard some rumors about the treatment of Jews in Germany over the past few years. I don’t know what will happen to the Jews here, but I’m more concerned for the Poles. Again, we’ll just have to take it one day at a time.”

“We learned in school that the Nazis were imprisoning and killing Jews for no reason other than their being Jewish. My history teacher, Mr. Zaleski, said that he wished someone would do that here and force the Jews out of Poland.”

“He said that in class?” Father exclaimed. “He shouldn’t be expressing personal opinions in class.”

“Father, what is your opinion of the Jews?”

“Why are we talking about this?” Mother asked. “Helena is too young to have to deal with these issues.”

“Mother, I’m sixteen. I’m not stupid, I know some of what’s going on in the world.”

“She’s right,” Father said. “This is something we all have to deal with, especially now. To answer your question, I don’t know any Jews well enough to really have an opinion. They tend to keep to themselves. When I see them in a cafĂ© or market they seem to be polite and well dressed. I have heard that the Jews in that slums on the east side of town are very poor though, living in filth and squalor. They don’t come into the center of town, so I’ve never encountered them.”

“It’s good that they keep to themselves,” Mother added. “They make me nervous.”

“Why do they make you nervous?” I asked.

“They just do. When I was young, my parents always told me to avoid them because they were dirty and would try to cheat me out of my money.”

“But that girl I saw in the Jewish market seemed polite.”

“I’ve had enough of this conversation,” Mother said. “Why are we sitting here talking about Jews? We have more important things to worry about. It’s quiet now, so I think I’ll go stretch my legs.”

Father and I took the opportunity to clean up the broken glass in my bedroom. We tore up one of the extra cardboard boxes we had and wedged the pieces into the window to seal it off. Then we pushed my armoire in front of the window. He decided that placing the large furniture in front of all of the windows was good idea to block any flying glass and other debris.

While he went about doing that, I took the jumped at the chance to take a bath. I feel filthy after three days. There isn’t any hot water, so it wasn’t very enjoyable, but at least I feel clean. After Mother set out lunch on the kitchen table, she also jumped in the tub for a quick bath. I think Father’s bath was the shortest of the three. Hopefully the electricity will stay on long enough for us to have hot water.

We invited the Wozniaks over for tea after lunch. It’s nice to do something normal. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. The bombing began again. The Wozniaks rushed back to their apartment and we hunkered down again.


The next morning Mother suggested I use the quiet periods to study a little. There’s no way of knowing when school will be back in session. I didn’t mind, it was a nice distraction from what was going on outside.

And so began our routine for the next week or so. Hiding during the bombings, sleeping in the bathroom, trying to distract ourselves from thoughts of what the future might hold, and using the quiet moments to at least pretend that life was normal. And then one morning there was a change. We could still hear the sounds of war in the distance but there was a different sound in the city.

“Tanks,” Father said. They were coming in from the west so either the Polish army is retreating or the German army is moving into the city.

We went out into the sitting room and moved the bookcase away from the window but we couldn’t see anything. We could hear the tanks and the sounds of what seemed like thousands of marching boots.

“I’m going outside,” Father said.

“No, it’s not safe.”

“Zofia, we have to know what’s going on.”

“I want to come with you, Father.”

“No,” Mother insisted, “definitely not.”

“We should all go. Maybe while we’re out we can check in on the family. If it is the Germans, we mustn’t draw attention to ourselves. Promise me, Zofia and Helena, if anything happens and I tell you to run back home, you'll run. Okay?”

“Yes, Father.”


Many of our neighbors were also coming out of their hiding places, curious about whatever changes were taking place. Everyone quietly nodded and waved, or shook hands. There’s a nice breeze blowing. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I reopened my eyes to see Wanda standing directly in front of me. We hugged and held hands as our families made their way toward the city center. A building on the corner was partially blown away. Father asked a man sitting on the front steps if anyone was hurt. The man said that an elderly gentleman who lived alone was killed. They’ve been trying to contact his son, but with the telephones out of service, it’s difficult.

As we approached the park and city hall the sounds grew louder. I heard many vehicles and, again, the sounds of soldiers marching. As the crowd began to thicken, Father grabbed Mother’s hand and she grabbed mine.

“Remember what I told you." Father said. "If I say run, you run.” We both nodded.

I could now see that it is the Germans. They look so confident. The people lining the streets were whispering nervously among themselves, eyes darting around trying to absorb this new situation. I had to stand on my tiptoes so I could see. The officers are riding in jeeps, looking like they had conquered the world instead of just our little piece of it. Most of the other soldiers look so young, Max’s age. Max. I hadn’t thought of him much the last few days. I said a little prayer for his safe return.

Suddenly a man carrying a pipe rushed out into the open toward one of the jeeps, taking swings at both the vehicle and its occupants. A nearby soldier immediately ran over and bashed him in the face with the butt of his rifle. After the man fell to the ground, one of the officers hopped from his jeep, unfastened his holster as he walked over to the man, removed his gun from the holster, shot the already bleeding man in the head, and calmly walked back to the jeep.

The crowd was startled. Women screamed, some fainted. Some started to run. Father clutched my mother and me so we wouldn’t get dragged off by the press of the crowd. We were in shock. I can’t believe what we had just witnessed. The German officer was so indifferent, like he was swatting a fly, not killing a man. No one made a move to remove the dead body from the street, probably fearing what might happen if they did.

The procession stopped in front of city hall, which was on the far side of the square. The building had suffered some superficial damage but is still one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The officers exited their vehicles and entered the building followed by a few dozen soldiers, guns at the ready. After a moment or two we heard gunfire inside the building. Three Polish men came running out the front door and were shot on the steps. Father clutched us tighter and led us back a few steps, closer to a nearby building. We know what’s happening is terrible but we just couldn’t turn our backs on it. In the meantime, two German soldiers walked over to the cowering crowd and grabbed two men to remove the dead body from the street. “Move that filthy Pole from the street!” we heard one soldier shout. The body was pulled onto the sidewalk and one of the men draped his jacket over it. Some of the people who had left after the first shots were fired had slowly filtered back to see what was going on.

“Michal, shouldn’t we go check on the family?”

No response.

“Michal!” she said again, shaking him out of his daze.

“Uh, yes, yes, let’s do that. We’ll stop by your father’s apartment first. We have to go around the back way since we can’t get through the square. Here,” he said, taking hold of her hand and putting an arm around my shoulders. “Let’s go.”

We walked along in silence.. I heard the roar of trucks but couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from. Suddenly, as we approached an intersection, Father suddenly pulled us back. A convoy of trucks was speeding down the narrow street without any regard for pedestrians. The trucks were loaded with boxes and furniture. After they passed we peeked around the corner of the building to see them approaching the point where the street reached the town square. People scattered to avoid being run down. Father raised his eyebrows, shook his head, and we continued walking.

When we turned onto the street where my grandfather lived, we saw that the front of his building had been damaged during the attack. Father ran up to the building, climbed over the rubble, and rushed up the stairs. He was pounding on the door as Mother and I made our way up to the second floor. No answer. A neighbor opened her door to see about the commotion and told us that Nicholas was fine. The damage to the building was only the facade, no one had been injured. My grandfather had walked to the town square to see what was happening. Mother leaned back against the wall and took a deep breath to calm herself. “Thank you. We’ll head over that way to find him.”

Just as we got back down to the street I saw Grandpa Nick walking towards us. I jumped over the rubble and ran to give him a big hug. “Grandpa Nick! Are you alright? We were worried about you.”

“Yes, yes dear, I’m fine. This isn’t the first war I’ve lived through,” he said with a smile.

Mother ran over to envelope him in her arms. Father followed, shaking his hand and clutching his arm.

“How are all of you?” Grandpa asked. “I didn’t think it was safe to venture out until today, and after what I just saw on the square, I’m still not sure.”

“We’re fine. This is our first day out too. We saw that man shot on the square,” Mother said. “It was horrible.”

“Just before I turned to walk home I saw the soldiers grabbing men from the crowd near the city hall to unload the trucks,” Grandpa said. “One man resisted and they bashed him in the head with the butt of a rifle.”

“Oh my goodness!” Mother said. “We should check on everyone else and then get home. Papa, do you want to come with us to Jozef’s house?

“No, I need a break. I think I’ll just go make some tea and take a nap.”

“We’ll make sure you get upstairs alright. Michal and Helena, clear away some of that debris on the front steps.”

Father and I cleared a path. As we started, I looked back at my grandfather. He looks tired. For the first couple of months after my Grandma Greta died, he seemed fine, just sad. Over the past few months, though, he seems to have aged a lot. He’s only fifty-eight years old and is already walking with a cane. He’s also thinner and appears to be shorter.

Mother helped him up the front steps and then we all went up to the second floor. She made tea for him, which he took over to his arm chair. She lovingly placed a blanket over his legs. He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. Mother is his only child here in Poland. Her younger brother, Alex, moved to London several years ago. There had been two younger siblings, a boy and a girl, but both died in 1918 during the influenza epidemic. Mother kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t overdo it,” she said. “We’ll see you soon.”

We continued walking toward Uncle Jozef’s house. Grandpa Andrej and Grandma Em live around the corner so we knew they would probably be there too. We passed by the street where Father’s accounting firm is located. “Wait,” he said, “let’s just go see if anyone is there.” The door was unlocked so we went in.

“Hello, is someone here?”

“Michal!” his boss yelled as he descended the stairs. “It’s good to see that you and your family are safe. My family is fine, just a little damage to the building we live in but thankfully no injuries. We should try to get back to work tomorrow. Can you come in?”

 “If things are quiet, I’ll try to make it,” Father said. “It'll feel good to get back to normal.”

“Yes, normal,” Mother added.

Father looked worried as we turned on to Uncle Jozef’s street. The first two houses on the corner were destroyed by a bomb strike. We walked faster, anxious to see that our loved ones were safe. Aside from a broken window, Uncle Jozef’s house appeared to be undamaged. We barged into the house without even knocking.

“Hello!” Father shouted.

“Jozef, it’s Michal, Zofia, and Helena!” Rose shouted as she ran towards us.

Mother and Aunt Rose were both crying as they hugged each other. Father and Jozef squeezed each other so hard I thought one of them would burst. Everyone kept hugging. Little Viktor popped his head into the room to see what was going on. “Hi Viktor,” I said and he ran back into his room.

“Are Mama and Papa here?” my father asked Jozef.

“They just left to go back to their apartment. They’re both fine.”

“Good. We’ll stop by on the way home.”

“Did you go down to the square?” Jozef asked.

“Yes, we were there for a while and saw some of the terrible things that happened. I don’t know how worried we should be. Maybe it was all just a show to scare us.”

“I hope so. I don’t know what to make of it either.”

“Have you heard from Max?"

“Not yet. Maybe now that the fighting is finished he’ll be able to contact us.”

Mother and Aunt Rose had moved their crying over to the sofa, but both seemed to be calmer now. We went over to sit with them. It feels good to be with family again. Jozef mentioned that he had gone over to his law office yesterday. He found a couple of windows that need to be patched up. He stopped by again earlier today and a couple of his employees were there. They agreed to come back to work tomorrow if things are quiet. “It’ll be nice to get back to normal,” he said. There was that word again, “normal”.

I went to go play with Viktor for a few minutes while Uncle Jozef and Father talked. Mother and Aunt Rose went in to the kitchen to discuss supplies, who has what, who doesn’t have enough of something, and what could be traded between them. All Viktor wanted to do was smash his toy cars together. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen him quiet. It must be tough for a little boy who doesn’t really understand what’s happening to his world. I’m sixteen and barely understand it. “Can I play too?” I asked and Viktor handed me one of the cars. We sat there smashing the cars into each other.

“Helena,” Mother called. “It’s time to leave. We still need to stop by Grandma Em’s apartment.” Everyone hugged and kissed again, and we all promised to be careful. More people were out on the streets now that the initial curiosity about the Germans had passed. We walked around the corner to Grandma Em’s apartment. She was so excited to see us at the door. She hugged me tightly. “Grandma, that’s enough. I can’t breathe.” She laughed and hugged me again anyway.

“Papa, good to see you,” Father said to Grandpa Andrej as he gave him a hug.

“Good. Everyone is safe,” Grandma Em said.

“Zofia, how is your father?”

“We just saw him and he’s fine, just tired.”

“Good. Come in. Sit down. Who wants a snack? It’s not much of a snack, just crackers and tea, but they’re good crackers.”

We were so caught up in the events of the day that we had missed lunch so we sat for a little while. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until I saw the crackers.

Just as we were getting ready to leave we heard the sound of gunfire coming from the town square. We decided that it was better to stay a little longer. There’s still plenty of daylight remaining.

“I wish we could listen to the radio,” Grandma Em said, trying to distract us. “The Germans will need electricity, so maybe they’ll turn it on for the entire city. We have no idea what's going on outside our little part of the world. Newspapers would be nice, too.”

Everyone nodded in agreement, but we could still hear the gunfire outside, and the tension in the room was obvious. “Why don’t we play some cards? Gin maybe?” said Grandma Em as she went to the china closet to find a deck. I could tell that she’s frightened too but she would never admit it. Grandma Em is a strong woman. Her parents and two younger sisters were killed when she was only ten years old. Em had gone down to the corner newsstand to buy a newspaper for her father, and, while she was out, the boiler in the basement of their apartment building exploded. Her family lived on the first floor and they had the bad luck to be sitting in the room directly above the boiler. She moved in with her aunt and uncle but they didn’t treat her well. So when she was sixteen, she dropped out of school and ran away from home. Em worked whatever jobs she could find and became friends with Grandpa Andrej’s sister. That’s how Em and Andrej met. The rest, as Grandma Em likes to say, is history.

We all pretended to enjoy the card game to make Grandma Em feel better. After an hour or so, the gunfire had stopped and Father decided it was time to go home. Grandma Em squeezed the stuffing out of me again. That’s okay. She needs the hug as much as I do. “Stay safe,” everyone said.

Father stepped out of the front door of the building first to make sure it was clear. Then we walked as quickly as we could while keeping an eye out for any trouble. The streets are mostly empty now. I was able to glance up one street to see that the crowds around the square had dispersed. It looks like army tents have been erected in the park. We heard more gunfire from farther away, maybe beyond city hall, and Father spurred us on. I was relieved when we arrived home. Mother immediately set to making soup for dinner. I went to my room to read for a little while but my thoughts kept drifting off. What will tomorrow bring?